Throughout my many travels I'm frequently asked by persons who don't know much about Mormons, Are Mormons Christians? With a smile I always give the same answer, "Yes we are, very much so."
Mormons quite often are referred to as Latter-Day Saint Christians due to the official name of the church which is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But it's more than just a name, Latter-Day Saints strive daily to live the life of Christ and abide by his teachings and those of his apostles.
The Bible tells us the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26) The word Christian means “a follower of Christ" but the word disciple means “student” or “pupil.” Hence a true Christian is not someone who simply says they believe in Christ but rather someone who ardently follows and studies the Savior their entire lives. Mormons do exactly that, therefore we are very much Christian in the truest sense of the word.
A rare confluence of a lunar eclipse and a supermoon set to happen this weekend has prompted such widespread fear of an impending apocalypse that the Mormon Church was compelled to issue a statement cautioning the faithful to not get caught up in speculation about a major calamity.
Sunday night's "blood moon" and recent natural disasters and political unrest around the world have led to a rise in sales at emergency preparedness retailers. Apocalyptic statements by a Mormon author have only heightened fears among a small number of Mormon followers about the looming end of time. The eclipse will give the moon a red tint and make it look larger than usual. It won't happen again for 18 years.
It's unclear how many Latter-day Saints buy the theory, but Mormon leaders were worried enough that they took the rare step this week of issuing a public statement cautioning the faithful not to get carried away with visions of the apocalypse.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told its 15 million worldwide members that they should be "spiritually and physically prepared for life's ups and downs," but urged them not to take speculation from individual church members as doctrine and "avoid being caught up in extreme efforts to anticipate catastrophic events."
The Mormons preparing to hunker down Sunday night aren't alone. Some from other religions also fear a doomsday scenario. A Christian pastor in Texas has written a book predicting a world-shaking event.
Storing away enough food and water in case of disaster, job loss or something worse is part of the fundamental teachings of the religion. Many homes in Utah are equipped with special shelving for cans of beans, rice and wheat. The belief that regular history will someday end, bringing a second coming of Jesus, is embedded in the minds of Mormons and the church's official name.
Though most Latter-day Saints probably haven't even heard of this latest theory tied to the blood moon, the church's decision to address it publicly is significant and shows leaders felt the need to reassert their authority on the matter, Mormon scholars said.
"For it to filter up to that level means and for them to decide to send out a policy letter means that they felt there was something they needed to tamp down on," said Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.
Kevin Allbee, spokesman for Utah-based Emergency Essentials, said his company has seen a steady rise since June with sales up 200 to 300 percent. He attributes it to a variety of events leading to more anxiety, including the earthquake in Nepal, Russian's intervention in the Ukraine and economic concerns in Greece and China. He said it goes well beyond Mormons in Utah. They do most of their sales online with customers outside the state.
The public pronouncement by the church comes after leaders earlier this month sent a memo to administrators and teachers in the church's education system telling them to be wary of Mormon author Julie Rowe's books.
Rowe writes about and speaks to audiences about a near-death experience in 2004 when she says she crossed over into the Spirit World and was shown tragic upcoming world calamities and told she would be expected to tell others in the future. "That time has come," her website proclaims. It is believed her teachings have fueled some of the speculation.
The church memo says that while Rowe is an active member of the religion, her books are not endorsed and should not be recommended as a teaching resource.
Rowe's publisher, Spring Creek Book Co. in Idaho, did not return requests for comment. She issued a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, which reported on the rise in apocalyptic worries among some Latter-day Saints.
Rowe said she doesn't intend to make her comments church doctrine, but chose to share her story to help people prepare for the "times we live in by increasing their faith in Christ and by looking to our prophet and church leaders for guidance.
In late October of 1830, roughly six months after the publication of the Book of Mormon, four LDS missionaries — including Parley Pratt, who had known Sidney Rigdon previously — came through Kirtland, Ohio, where Sidney had built up a communal church, and introduced him to both the Book of Mormon and Mormonism. Rigdon was a devout and studious preacher of the Bible, even naming one of his sons after the great 14th-century reformer and Bible translator John Wycliff.
Meanwhile, almost from its first publication, it had become obvious to those who knew them both that Joseph Smith lacked the education and ability to have written the Book of Mormon. Accordingly, critics seeking an alternative human explanation for the book needed a secret ghostwriter, and they soon imagined that they’d found him in the much better educated Sidney Rigdon. Sidney’s supposed first encounter with the book, they decided, must have been mere play-acting.
In 1865, more than two decades after Sidney’s excommunication, John Wycliff Rigdon, who, as a young adolescent, had followed his parents out of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, interviewed his father about the Book of Mormon.
"I concluded,” he later wrote, “I would make an investigation for my own satisfaction and find out, if I could, if he had all these years been deceiving his family and the world, by telling that which was not true, and I was in earnest about it. If Sidney Rigdon, my father, had thrown his life away by telling a falsehood and bringing sorrow and disgrace upon his family, I wanted to know it and was determined to find out the facts, no matter what the consequences might be.”
In his mid-30s by this time, John hadn’t seen his father for a considerable while. Among other things, though, he’d visited the Mormon settlements in Utah, which, he said, “had not impressed me very favorably toward the Mormon church, and as to the origin of the Book of Mormon I had some doubts.” So he came right to the point:
“You have been charged,” he said, “with writing that book and giving it to Joseph Smith to introduce to the world. You have always told me one story; that you never saw the book until it was presented to you by Parley P. Pratt and Oliver Cowdery; and all you ever knew of the origin of that book was what they told you and what Joseph Smith and the witnesses who claimed to have seen the plates had told you. Is this true? If so, all right; if it is not, you owe it to me and to your family to tell it. You are an old man and you will soon pass away, and I wish to know if Joseph Smith, in your intimacy with him for 14 years, has not said something to you that led you to believe he obtained that book in some other way than what he had told you. Give me all you know about it, that I may know the truth.”
His father, he recorded, raised his hand above his head and slowly said, with tears running down his cheeks, “My son, I can swear before high heaven that what I have told you about the origin of that book is true. Your mother and sister … were present when that book was handed to me in Mentor, Ohio, and all I ever knew about the origin of that book was what Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith and the witnesses who claimed they saw the plates have told me, and in all of my intimacy with Joseph Smith he never told me but one story, and that was that he found it engraved upon gold plates in a hill near Palmyra, New York. … I believed him, and now believe he told me the truth.”
Afterward, John recalled, his father also declared “that Mormonism was true; that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, and this world would find it out some day.” And, years later, just before her own death, John’s mother confirmed Sidney’s account, “for she was present at the time and knew that was the first time he ever saw it, and that the stories told about my father writing the Book of Mormon were not true."
Impelled by those conversations, John ultimately moved to Utah and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At his death in 1912, he was buried in Salt Lake City.
Some time ago, while visiting greater Kansas City, my wife and I spent several of our free hours visiting the graves of the seven witnesses to the Book of Mormon — all those connected with the Whitmer family — who are buried in the vicinity.
John Whitmer’s body rests at Kingston, near Far West, Missouri, nearly 56 miles to the northeast of Kansas City. (On John Whitmer, see my column "John Whitmer left church, but kept testimony of Book of Mormon.") Hiram Page, a Whitmer brother-in-law, was buried near Excelsior Springs, Missouri, 30 miles northeast from downtown.
Both Christian Whitmer and Peter Whitmer Jr. are buried at Liberty, Missouri, 20 miles northeast of Kansas City and roughly 3 miles from the jail where the Prophet Joseph Smith and others spent five months captive during the winter of 1838-39. In 2011, thanks to the anonymous generosity of two brothers who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an impressive granite monument was erected on the site to honor not just Christian and Peter, but all of the Eight Witnesses.
Jacob Whitmer is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Richmond, Missouri, roughly 40 miles due east from Kansas City, along with Peter Whitmer Sr. and Mary Musselman Whitmer, who herself is an important (unofficial) witness to the Book of Mormon. And about 40 feet north of Jacob’s grave is that of Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and another Whitmer son-in-law. (Since 1911, a granite monument to the Three Witnesses has stood nearby; it served as the model for the Eight Witnesses monument erected a century later in Liberty.)
David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses and the longest-surviving of all of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, lies not too far away in the separate Richmond (City) Cemetery, where, coincidentally, Bob Ford, “the man who shot Jesse James,” also rests.
As we drove through rural western Missouri, I noticed banners hanging at several churches, announcing tours to the Holy Land — referring, of course, to the places associated with the Bible and the life of Jesus Christ. Now, I yield to nobody in affirming the value that a visit to biblical sites can have for faith and religious understanding; I’ve led several tours to Israel myself.
But it struck me then that the vast majority of the people in those churches likely had no idea that they themselves were already surrounded by the history and the graves of much more recent eyewitnesses who were comparable to the early disciples of Jesus. They, too, saw. They, too, knew for themselves.
And, although they encountered difficulties and eventually fell away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they, too, remained faithful to what they had seen, bearing witness of it until (and, as we’ll shortly see, even beyond) their dying days.
Oliver Cowdery, for example, dissented away from Joseph Smith and was eventually excommunicated from the LDS Church — a daring move on Joseph’s part, by the way, if Oliver were a co-conspirator with him in fraud — but was rebaptized on Nov. 12, 1848, by Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Oliver wanted to move westward with the saints, casting his lot with a persecuted and homeless people, but failing health prevented him from doing so, and he died at the home of David Whitmer on March 3, 1850. Those who were with him at the end, though, unanimously affirm that he continued to declare his testimony. To Jacob Gates, for example, he’s reported to have spoken as follows:
“Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind — it was real.”
Oliver’s wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery (1815-1892), had known him since the time when, before their marriage, he served as scribe while Joseph Smith dictated from the golden plates. “He always without one doubt,” she said of her husband, “affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.”
David Whitmer’s grave is marked by a stone shaft on which two books are carved — plainly the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Inscribed on the shaft is his final earthly testimony: “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal.”
In last week’s column, I cited several passages from ancient Christian writers that express a doctrine of human “divinization” or “deification” known among modern scholars by its Greek name, “theosis” or “theopoiesis.”
It can, of course, be objected that those ancient Christians didn’t teach precisely the same doctrine of deification that modern Latter-day Saints do, and that’s certainly true.
As the years passed, Christian teaching on the nature of God increasingly resembled that of the philosophical schools founded by Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and others — for the simple and sufficient reason that, after the passing of the apostles, Christian thinkers were increasingly influenced by those schools — so what Christians meant by “becoming like God” also inevitably changed.
However, given The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' belief in an ancient Christian apostasy, it’s surely not unreasonable to view this language of deification as the fossil remnant of a doctrine that, at its very beginning, was much, much closer to that of the Latter-day Saints.
But this language of human deification isn’t quite entirely absent from even modern Western Christianity. C.S. Lewis, for example, despite the fact that his conception of God was substantially different from the Latter-day Saint view in important ways. He believed God to be unembodied, and he accepted the classical doctrine of the Trinity — nonetheless, he commonly (and strikingly) spoke of humans becoming gods. He had done extensive study in ancient post-biblical Christian writing, and he had plainly encountered the doctrine of “theosis.” I offer two examples:
“It is a serious thing,” Lewis wrote in an essay titled “The Weight of Glory,” “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”
“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas,” Lewis declared in his enduringly popular book “Mere Christianity.” “Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and he is going to make good His words. If we let him — for we can prevent him, if we choose — he will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) his own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.”
Given his understanding of God, it’s impossible to maintain that Lewis’ understanding of becoming like God was exactly the same as Joseph Smith’s. Still, the simple fact remains that Latter-day Saints have a doctrine of human divinization while any such doctrine has been muted, virtually forgotten or even altogether lost from many if not most other Christian traditions.
It’s obviously not because notions of divinization are commonplace in the Christian mainstream, or widely taught, that Mormons have been derided as “God Makers” (as a once-popular Protestant anti-Mormon propaganda film did, intending to shock its audience). And I, for one, am much more impressed with the similarities between Joseph Smith’s doctrine on this point and certain teachings in ancient Christianity than I am with any differences between them.
Numerous scriptural passages teach that those who receive the gift of eternal life will look like God, receive the inheritance of God, receive God’s glory, be one with God, sit upon God’s throne, and exercise the power and rule of God. So calling them “gods,” as C.S. Lewis and many others in Christian history have done, seems entirely reasonable.
These columns invariably run between 736 and 739 words in length. Plainly, they can’t be as nuanced as a complex topic such as this demands, nor can they engage every issue or objection. For more detailed treatments of the ancient Christian doctrine, see Keith Norman’s Duke University dissertation “Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology,” which is accessible online at publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/people/keith-edward-norman/, and Father Jordan Vajda’s Berkeley master’s thesis “Partakers of the Divine Nature: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization,” published at BYU in 2002 but unfortunately unavailable online.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that human beings can grow spiritually and progress morally until, through divine mercy and grace, they can inherit and possess all that the Father has. To put it bluntly, if they’re faithful they can become gods. This is taught in revelations given to modern prophets (see Doctrine and Covenants 76:58; 132:19-20), as well as in sermons delivered by Joseph Smith. A couplet associated with President Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the LDS Church, explains that “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”
But this doctrine is often misrepresented and misunderstood, and has drawn a great deal of both mockery and hostility from critics of Mormonism. So it’s essential to understand it correctly:
While Latter-day Saints don’t believe that human beings will be literally absorbed into God in the manner taught by some Christian and other mystics, they also don’t believe that humans will ever be independent of God, or that they’ll ever cease to be subordinate to God. They believe that to become as God is means to overcome the world through the Atonement of Jesus Christ (see 1 John 5:4-5; Revelation 2:7, 11). Thus, the faithful become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ and will inherit all things — just as Christ inherits all things (see Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; Revelation 21:7). They’re received into the “church of the firstborn,” meaning that they inherit as though they were the firstborn (see Hebrews 12:23). There are no limitations on these scriptural declarations; those who become as God inherit everything God has. In that glorified state, they’ll resemble our Savior; they’ll receive his glory and be one with him and the Father (see 1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; John 17:21-23; Philippians 3:21).
It’s also important to know that the doctrine of human deification isn’t an exclusively Mormon teaching. It — or something remarkably like it — can also be found in early Christian history. I’ll offer just a few examples here:
In the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who is arguably the most important Christian theologian of his time (about A.D. 130-200), said much the same thing as President Snow: “If the Word became a man, it was so men may become gods.”
Similarly, Irenaeus' rough contemporary Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 150-215) wrote, “Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” And, referring to the famous pagan pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, Clement endorsed his declaration that “Men are gods, and gods are men.” This recalls the apostle Paul’s approving citation of the third-century B.C. pagan poet Aratus of Cilicia to a pagan audience in Athens (Acts 17:28-29): Paul taught that humans are God’s “offspring.” (See my earlier discussion in a column from March 2013, "Every man, woman and child is a child of God").
Earlier in the second century, St. Justin Martyr (about A.D. 100-165) insisted that humans can be “deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest.” Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (about A.D. 296-373), also stated his belief in deification in terms very similar to those of Lorenzo Snow: “The Word was made flesh in order that we might be enabled to be made gods.” On another occasion, Athanasius observed that “He became man that we might be made divine.” Finally, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), perhaps the greatest of the early Christian Fathers, said: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God’ (John 1:12). If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.”
These five writers weren’t just orthodox Christians; in time, they were revered as saints. Three of them wrote within roughly a century of the apostles. Human deification was part of historical Christianity until relatively recent times, and a form of it still exists in some Eastern Christian churches. One scholar states that recognizing “the history of the universe as the history of divinization and salvation” was fundamental to ancient orthodox Christianity: “Because the Spirit is truly God, we are truly divinized by the presence of the Spirit.”
Whether one accepts or rejects the doctrine of human deification, it was clearly taught in very early Christianity. Joseph Smith obviously didn’t make it up. Instead, Latter-day Saints believe, it’s an eternal truth miraculously restored through a modern prophet.